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Graphic: San Jose Mercury News

Tweet, tweet

Culture | Simplicity and functionality are making Twitter fly

Issue: "Not over till it's over," Nov. 1, 2008

Two years ago, a few savvy web developers posed a question to the world: What are you doing?

Turns out, that innocuous opener for all manner of human interaction is tough to ignore. People numbering in the millions have since logged on to twitter.com to post answers and read those of friends, family, or whomever else they may find compelling. (Like Google, Twitter knew it had struck a chord when it went from being only a noun to being also a verb.)

James Karl Buck, a graduate student from the University of California-Berkeley, joined the cultural phenomenon this past spring-and not a moment too soon. A week after opening an account on the site, he and a translator were arrested in Mahalla, Egypt, as they sought to cover an anti-government protest. On the way to the police station, Buck connected to Twitter via his cell phone and fired off a single-word distress signal: "Arrested."

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In an instant, that "tweet" popped onto the computer screens and mobile devices of every person following Buck's feed. Friends sprang to action, and subsequent updates helped trigger intervention from a university-hired lawyer. Less than a day later, Buck sent out another one-word tweet: "Free."

Few Twitter users could report such drama in their interactions with the micro-blogging site. For most, the service represents an invitation to broadcast life's mundane moments in the required brevity of 140 characters or less. But stories like Buck's serve as public-relations gold for Twitter's creators, pressing many micro-blogging skeptics to give tweets a chance.

Indeed, company co-founder Biz Stone reports growth of 600 percent in Twitter accounts over the past year. And individuals are not the only ones discovering the site's lure. Businesses, political campaigns, and even churches are now leveraging the social networking tool.

The draw: simplicity and immediacy. Unlike Facebook, MySpace, or other social networking sites, Twitter strips away clutter in the name of one dynamic, ever-updating feed. Users can follow whomever they choose, aggregating content from neighbors to NASA to presidential candidates. And unlike "traditional" blogs, which require time and thought to produce worthwhile content, tweets roll out with stream-of-consciousness ease.

Case in point: I'm writing an article on Twitter.

But for all its popularity, Twitter has yet to turn a profit. The site's sleek and mostly ad-free environment accounts for much of its draw and precludes significant advertising revenue. What's more, most Twitter users rarely visit the website, accessing the service instead through downloadable programs. Stone reports that traffic on such programs is about 20 times that of actual site visits.

Still, considerable profit seems inevitable. "We're not sharing a specific timeline regarding profitability, but it is certainly our intention to be a sustainable business," Stone told WORLD. "We're looking at the significant amount of commercial usage taking place on Twitter as a good starting point."

Major companies like Dell, General Motors, Cisco Systems, Kodak, JetBlue, Comcast, H&R Block, and many others are using the tool to connect with customers and field feedback on products and services. News outlets, including the BBC (and WORLD), have likewise picked up on the opportunity to reach followers instantaneously.

On a more local level, Twitter's searchable base of rapidly updating information renders it a first destination for breaking news. First-hand Twitter reports of a local fire or bank robbery often beat out the first reports from professional print or broadcast journalists. And for gauging the level of buzz around such news or other local happenings, no other outlet compares.

It all adds up to a dynamic tool for building participatory community, a function that grabbed the eye of artist and evangelical innovator John Voelz, a pastor at Westwinds Church in Jackson, Mich. At first, Voelz simply introduced the service into the church office as a means to foster staff dialogue and connection. But his penchant for experimentation soon birthed a far grander, albeit more controversial, idea.

On June 1, Westwinds hosted its first "Twitter Sunday," projecting a feed with content from churchgoers onto auditorium screens throughout the entirety of three services. The tweets poured in: I love this song . . . Somebody turn Jimmy's guitar up . . . Thank God for coffee at church. And on a more serious note: The more I press in to Him, the more He presses me out to be useful . . . It is easy to give Him credit after the fact but it is my prayer to see Him now . . . sometimes healing is painful.

Reaction to the event was mixed among congregants, many of whom took church-run Twitter classes prior to the Sunday experiment. "The naysayers thought it was a joke and who cares, but I was saying, 'No, this is an avenue for participation.'" Voelz said. "This is another layer of engagement for people. Some people are going to hate it, but some people are going to hate everything we do. People hated it when we put projectors and screens up 20 years ago."

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